The History Of Brazil Nut Production

The Brazil nut, (butter-nut, para-nut, or cream-nut) (Berthol-Letia Myrtaceae or B. Excelsa) is not grown anywhere in the United States due to the tenderness of the tree. They form large forests on the banks of the Amazon and Rio Nigro rivers in South America. The trees are 100 to 150 ft. tall with smooth trunks 3 to 4 ft. or more in diameter, and with branches near the top.

Port Newark–Elizabeth Marine Terminal
Port Newark–Elizabeth Marine Terminal

Large quantities of Brazil nuts are shipped from Para, a northern Brazil state, and received at the largest American food port in Newark, New Jersey. New Orleans comes in a distant second for importing Brazil Nuts to America. Over the course of the past 100 years of the history of Brazil nut production the Newark, New Jersey port has always been the biggest American importer. With New Orleans being the second. Europe, Asia, and Africa have been increasing their imports over the past few decades. On their arrival, they are placed in storage at 34°-45° F. with a relative humidity of 65 to 70%.

The Brazil nut is indigenous to the Amazon region and attempts to produce it elsewhere have not been commercially successful. On the other hand, cashews also from Brazil were domesticated by the Europeans and grow all over the world. The Brazil nut is one of the principal products exported from the Amazon basin. The industry is one of the most important in the area and the most picturesque of the world’s edible tree nut industries.

Bulk Brazil Nuts

The History Of Brazil Nut Production And Their Growing Areas

The temperature in the Amazon Basin along and near the banks of rivers is relatively uniform and the humidity is high. Temperatures during the year vary from 101° to 64°F. The monthly variations between the average maximum and minimum temperatures registered are from 9° to 18°F. In the upper regions of the Amazon Valley, the variations are somewhat greater, and in Acre Territory, they are greater still. The greatest variation in temperature generally occurs during the comparatively dry season, which extends from June through November.

Distribution Of Suitable Habitat Of Brazil Nut Growth

The rainfall in the Amazon Basin is heavy and typical of the Tropics in this part of the world.

The Brazil nut tree is found scattered throughout the entire Amazon Basin. The northern limit is southern Venezuela and British Guiana, or about 5° north latitude. The southern limit is the Beni Highland in northeastern Bolivia and northwestern Mato Grosso in Brazil, about 14° south latitude. Its western limit is eastern Colombia and Peru near the Brazillian and Bolivian borders. We are only looking at data from commercial Brazil Nut operations in Acre, Amapa, Amazonas, Guapore, Para, and Rio Branco, or, roughly speaking, in the Brazilian States and territories of the Amazon Basin.

The Amazon Basin is larger than the combined area of the 11 Western States of the United States. Also, more than eight times the size of California. The wooded area alone is seven times the size of the State of California. Or nearly a hundred times as large as the Netherlands. It was the people of the Netherlands that were said to have been the first foreigners to recognize the culinary value. Perhaps, they were the first to import the Brazil nut for commercial uses.

How Many Trees Are There And Who Collects The Nuts?

The fruit that grows to ripen on the tree and then falls to the ground is called Ouricco. Each one carries any number of Brazil Nuts inside. This makes math a little more challenging. The arrangement of the nuts in the pod is similar to the segments of an orange and holds in place by a fibrous growth. This fibrous substance dries as the fruit matures. When the pod falls from the tree to the ground, the impact breaks the fiber into small pieces and loosens the nuts within the pod.

Ouricco, Harvesting Brazil Nuts

The average annual production for the 10 years 1933 to 1942 was 41,100 short tons. The average yield per tree was said to be from 500 to 800 pounds of nuts. Not including the weight of the outer shell. If the lower figure of 500 pounds is used, it is indicated that some 165,000 trees are harvested during the first half of the century.

The Brazil nut tree is one of the tallest in the Amazon Basin, from 75 to 150 ft. high, and usually reaches well above the surrounding jungle. The height of the tree depends on its age, the soil, and other growth factors. The trunk of the Brazil nut tree is generally smooth and is covered with brown or ash-colored bark. It is very straight and devoid of lower branches. Scientists believe that this is to protect the seeds of the tree from smaller animal predators.

Caboclos. Ouricco. Castana. Castanheiros.

The inhabitants of the Amazon Basin are known as Caboclos, meaning “copper-colored ones.” These are the people that started harvesting the Brazil Nut for sale and export. They are two types of Caboclos the year-round residents of the Amazon Basin and the migratory workers who come into the area from other parts of Brazil. To South Americans, the nuts taken out of the fruit that falls from the trees are locally called Castana. While the Brazil nut gatherers are called Castanheiros.

Whenever drought or other adverse weather or economic conditions prevail in northeastern Brazil, large numbers of laborers migrate to the Amazon Basin to work for a season or longer. The migratory worker generally does not like conditions in the Amazon Basin, since he is used to a dryer climate and usually is very anxious to return to his home. The manner in which the migratory worker lives and collects Brazil nuts and other jungle produce differs little from that of the permanent resident.

This is an estimation. Unlike the number of Almond trees in California, any estimate of Brazil nut trees is an estimate. The yield, however, may average considerably less. There are hundreds of thousands of trees from which the fruit is never comes to harvest.

Biggest Commercial Tree Plantations Today

The three largest commercial plantings of Brazil nuts in the Brazilian portion of the Amazon basin:

  • The largest plantation is located near Boa Vista in the Federal Territory of Rio Branco in the north of the State of Amazonas. It is said to contain about 14,000 trees, which are about 30 years old. The trees in the plantation are spaced 20 meters apart. This plantation produces from 1,500 to 2,000 hectoliters (84 to 112 U.S. tons) of unshelled nuts per year.
  • The second largest plantation is located near Parintins in Amazonas. This plantation contains an estimated 12,000 trees from 10 to 12 years old. it was planted by a Japanese agricultural firm but has since passed into the hands of a Brazil nut exporting firm in Manaus. The production from this plantation is still very limited as the trees are still young.
  • The third plantation is located near Manaus and contains about 4,000 trees between 19 and 22 years old. This planting was made in conjunction with an attempt to start a rubber plantation. The rubber trees for various reasons died and the plantation was for some years abandoned. It has since been revived as a Brazil nut plantation and is produced on a commercial scale.

These three plantations are relatively young as far as Brazil nut trees go and do not supply an accurate guide as to the economic feasibility of plantations. The abundance of wild trees and the length of time and cost involved to bring a plantation into profitability makes the venture very long-term. There are a number of advantages to having such plantations but there are also disadvantages. A well-planned plantation would permit the use of wagons or other means of transportation and other types of equipment.

Brazil Nut Trees And When Their Fruit Ripen

The total of tons that come from these plantations offers the owners an opportunity to estimate the probable tonnage he will harvest and thus permit him to sell at a better advantage. It would also reduce the number of laborers required to harvest the nuts. The probable returns from such a plantation would generally not justify the expenditure during the lifetime of the person planting them. The goal is to have different crops ripen at different times to get them shelled and onto boats for export.

A Harvested Brazil Nut In The Shell

The tree begins to flower in its fifth or sixth year but little fruit is produced until the twelfth to fifteenth year. Flowering takes place from October to March in most of the producing areas

It is usually at least a year from the blossoming state to the time when the pods mature and drop to the ground. A point of particular interest is that blossoms and mature, or nearly mature, fruit are found on the Brazil nut tree at the same time. The quantity of blossoms on the tree in a current year, therefore, gives a preliminary indication of the potential yield a year hence. Such a preliminary indication on a commercial plantation of fruits or nuts would normally be of considerable help in forecasting production.

How And When To Harvest Brazil Nuts

The pods, or Ouricos, that contain the commercial Brazil nut begin to drop from the trees in late November and continue into early June. There is a slight variation in the season according to the section of the country. Those in Acre and Rio Negro are usually the first to ripen. Because of the immense size of the tree and the pod, the pods the crews never ascend the tree to gather the nuts.

The action of the winds breaks the heavy pods loose and they drop to the ground. Laborers make it a point not to be under the trees on windy or rainy days. Even on calm days, they are constantly on guard against falling Ouricos. The pods weigh from 2 to 4 pounds so dangerous to those beneath them. The history of Brazil nut production is undeniably dangerous for the workers if you picture high trees and heavy falling fruit.

The Way That Laborers, Caboclos, Find Work During The Harvest Season

The laborer or caboclo, when employed in collecting Brazil nuts is referred to as a castanheiro. He or she is frequently a migratory worker who follows the Brazil nut and rubber harvests.

The production outputs depend not so much on the yield but on foreign demand. If there were sufficient foreign demand, production is easy expand by harvesting in wild areas. Strong foreign demand would result in higher prices. This would cause the Latin American Traders in the interior to make more effort to tap areas normally not harvested. Supply can easily be increased to hit demand by harvesting trees that grow far from plantations. Then it becomes more work for the Caboclos to travel and get more product from further away.

When the F.O.B. prices in Brazil were doubled or trebled, production could be almost unlimited to match the price. But, with the quotations of recent years, The history of Brazil nut production and pricing globally has been right in line with price inflation. The global market expanded modestly in 2021, picking up by 2.7% against the previous year. The market value increased at an average annual rate of +1.4% over the period from 2012 to 2021. That percentage increased the global inflation rate. In 2022, that rate could be a 9% increase to match inflation. A 4% or 5% increase is expected in 2023 to match inflation. Same as 2022 and 2021 and for many decades before it,

The Brazil Nut Shelling Industry

Most of the shelled Brazil nuts used in the United States prior to 1930 were shelled in the United States. In 1930, this practice was discontinued since it has been cheaper to import nuts shelled in Brazil.

The largest of the shelling plants is in the waterfront city of Belem, Brazil. This plant has an annual production capacity in excess of 1,300 tons of shelled Brazil nuts in 1950 to 40,000 tons shelled in 2022. It employs more than 1,000 workers during the peak season and prepares both shelled and blanched nuts. The plant is one of the most modern and hygienic in Brazil. Great care is given to grade, quality, and sanitation.

Belen Brazil Nut Shelling Facility.png

The industry is justly proud of this modern shelling plant. Their efforts toward increasing foreign demand by constantly striving to improve the quality of its product have gained notice from the press. The operation of this plant has inspired other shellers to modernize their plants and operations. According to the latest available information, there are 9 shelling plants. The single largest is in Belem. There are 6 in Manaus. There are four plants in Bolivia. These plants give employment to an estimated 6,000 workers in total, mostly women, for much of the year.

Shelling plants buy their unshelled nuts through brokers much the same as exporters of all unshelled nuts. Many owners of the sheller plants, in fact, are also exporters of both shelled and unshelled Brazil nuts, unshelled nuts. Many shelling-plant operators buy for future delivery, although this sometimes works out to their disadvantage. The sheller can buy at times when foreign demand is low. Therefore, do not worry about getting a lower grade or size of the Brazil nuts.

The Process Of Removing A Shell

A Modern Brazil Nut Steamer To Loosen The Shells

The nuts to be shelled are placed in large cement vats and covered with water. They are permitted to soak for about 24 hours and then are placed in boiling water for 3 to 5 minutes to soften the shell. After the removal of the nuts from the boiling water, they are taken into the cracking room where they lay flat. Over the course of the history of Brazil nut production, cracking machines were hand-operated even up until the early 2000s. The crew takes care in this work not to exert too much pressure on the shell and so damage the kernel.

The dried nuts without the shells are passed to graders for sizing. For blanched nuts, the brown skin is removed before the nuts go to the dryers. This happens with simply hot water. When unshelled Brazil nuts reach the plant before they get received in the United States, they have been cleaned of foreign matter. Also, most of the spoiled nuts, found in the shipments from the interior, have been dried of their moisture. As an online seller of Bulk Brazil Nuts, the only calls that we get for unshelled nuts are from American zoos and similar animal sanctuaries.

The actual cost of producing shelled nuts is not available to the public. It is known to vary considerably with the different plants and with the quality and cost of the unshelled nuts.

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